Saturday, June 17, 2017


Chauvet Buffalo Woman,,
public domain.

Last week I wrote about the question of the time depth of the Pied Piper myth, the Paleolithic origins of the Polyphemus myth according to Julien d'Huy, and whether a woman/buffalo transformation figure in Chauvet Cave in France could illustrate a Paleolithic version of Buffalo Woman of Native American mythology.

D'Huy's analysis traced the Polyphemus myth through space as well as time, indicating that it had reached North America in the Paleolithic period and had evolved into an explanation of the coming of the buffalo. He even related a Blackfoot version that involved Trickster Crow hiding a herd of buffalo in a cave, but two hunters outwitted him and freed the buffalo. (d'Huy 2016) For other peoples of North America the trickster who hid the buffalo was Coyote. For the Lakota people, however, the buffalo were brought to the people by Buffalo Woman, or White Buffalo Maiden.

Deep inside Chauvet Cave there is a painting that seems to illustrate the transformation of a buffalo into a woman and vice versa. It could be possible that this illustrates some variant of the Buffalo Woman myth. Drawn on a downward projecting stalactite is a frontal view of the lower half of a nude woman's figure from the pubic triangle on down. "There are also a couple of good examples of the hybrid figure of a bison-woman, such as the famous image from Chauvet, in France. This black painting features the detailed head of a bison on top of the lower half of a female body (she is nude and her pubic triangle has been emphasized by the artist)." (Von Pezinger 2016:91)

Whether or not this composition was meant to actually illustrate some Paleolithic version of the Buffalo Woman myth, it certainly does a great job of conveying the idea of animal to human transformation.

Chauvet bison woman,
redrawn from Clotte.

There is another aspect of this figure that fascinates me and I have been unable to find any information on from other sources so I will have to tackle this one on my own. It involves the woman's other leg (her right leg). A careful examination of the composite figure shows that the woman's right leg originates as the front leg of a lion drawn facing away from her torso. When I first noticed it I immediately felt a flicker of recognition. The lion's head and left front leg (the woman's right leg) reminded me of the of the head and left arm of the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel.

Lion Man  of Hohlenstein-Stadel,
Public domain.

The Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel "is a prehistoric ivory sculpture that was discovered in the Hohlenstein-Stadel, a German cave in 1939. - The lion-headed figurine is the oldest-known zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world, and the oldest known uncontested example of figurative art. It has been determined to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old by carbon dating of material from the layer in which it was found, and is thus associated with the archaeological Aurignacian culture. It was carved out of wooly mammoth ivory." (Wikipedia) 

To my eye the similarity of the head and bent arm of the carved ivory figure and the head and bent front leg of the lion figure on the left in the group in Chauvet Cave is so remarkable as to be  highly evocative. Now I will be the first to admit that I am not at all sure what this similarity evokes; some Paleolithic myth cycle, a religious belief, or something I cannot imagine? Can there be any connection? Probably not based upon ages, the Chauvet Cave art is dated to 30,000 - 32,000 BCE by radiocarbon, and the Lion-man is 35,000 - 40,000 BCE, quite a discrepancy. However, they are both considered to be Aurignacian in origin, and similar beliefs and myth cycles are a possibility.

There are many instances of beliefs that have lasted essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Indeed, if I change the term from myth to religious belief we can point to Christianity and its basic tenets, or Judaism for a longer time frame. In his book The Cave and the Cathedral, Amir D. Aczel traces the cult of the bull from the aurochs painted in the Paleolithic cave art of Europe, through the bull horns and heads so prevalent in neolithic Catalhoyuk on the Anatolian plain, to the bulls and acrobats in the Minoan murals of the Palace of Knossos, on Crete. This, if true, would give that theme a time-depth of perhaps 10,000+ years. So perhaps it is not completely outlandish to suggest a possible mythological connection between the "sorcerer" painted in Chauvet, and the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel.

There is one other possibility that should be pointed out, it could be an example of a visual pun, or a puzzle picture, like the duck's head/rabbit optical illusion. Perhaps the artist was just having fun? In any case the form of the woman's figure morphing into a bison and a lion in Chauvet cave is a remarkably sophisticated piece of work, both in concept, and in design and rendering. Not only are the painted caves of Europe a testament to the artistic abilities of our Paleolithic ancestors, they are evidence of their sophisticated thought processes and beliefs, and, as such, are real treasures of human heritage.

NOTE: Images used in this column were retrieved from the Internet with a search that included the phrase Public Domain. If any of these images were not intended to be public domain I apologize for their use, and will be happy to correct my error if so informed.


Aczel, Amir D.
2009 The Cave and the Cathedral: How a Real-Life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar Decoded the Ancient Art of Man, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Clottes, Jean
2001 Chauvet Cave: The Discovery of the Worlds Oldest Paintings, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

d'Huy, Julien
2016 The Evolution of Myths, pages 62-69, Scientific American, vol. 315, No. 6, Dec. 2016.

Von Petzinger, Genevieve,
2016 The First Signs, Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols, Atria Books, New York, London.


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